I have a confession to make. I watched a steamy sex scene the other day and it got me worked up. So worked up, in fact, that it made me cry. Twice.
And that's why representation in TV and movies matters.
A little backstory first.
I have always hated my body. I mean I loathed it. It was gross.
As I got older, those feelings only intensified. I eventually got to the point I just didn't care about my body. Why bother exercising when you'll hate looking in the mirror regardless of how fit you are? Why care about your teeth when your whole face is just... wrong?
In other words, I just gave up on caring because my dislike of my body was too much to bear. Which is what dysphoria means: hard or too much to bear.
To make matters worse, from early adolescence on I had these fantasies I couldn't shake.
I use the term "fantasies" here to mean "imaginary, daydream-like scenarios that individuals play out in their heads." (via Psychology Today). I feel like I must note that these scenarios were rarely sexual, even during adolescence. They usually did not even involved romance. This disclaimer is sadly necessary because of the creepy fixation "gender critical" advocates have on trans people's sexual desires, and the way they attempt to frame these usually normative desires as fetishes and perversions. If you want to learn more, google any discussion of gender critical ideas, including their own, or visit r/itsafetish on Reddit at your own peril (CW: rampant transphobia).
These fantasies usually involved being kidnapped and forcibly having my genitals removed and being given a girl's anatomy. The exact process was not really the point, though the procedures were quite juvenile at first, becoming more sophisticated as my understanding of anatomy grew. These fantasies — desire dreams, really — would dominate my thoughts, often keeping me up until 3 or 4 am on school nights. Once the process was completed, I was "released" back to my normal life, where I would imagine going through my regular routine (school, home, church, out with friends) normally, but as a female.
Being forced to undergo this transition was a critical component of the fantasy. You see, if you were forced to become a girl, it couldn't be a sin. No one could blame you. You wouldn't be a pervert... a deviant... gross.
Of course, I did realize that I was fixating on becoming a girl in my head, and, forcibly or not, that fantasy was still theologically and practically problematic.
When I came out to my parents as a very-much-adult (aged 47), I was met with some of the standard responses including "you didn't give any signs." But I was growing up in the mid-1980's. It was semi-rural Alabama. "Self"-segregated Black buses and white buses on band trips. The height of the "gay disease" AIDS epidemic, parents railing against GNC celebrities like Boy George, my mom threatening to come into my room in the middle of the night and yank out my earrings if I ever got one.
Of course there were no signs! I can read a room that much, even with autism. Unfortunately, that cishet ideology became internalized, and I didn't acknowledge those feelings for what they truly were for decades.
Several things kept me from being able to accept that these desires were in fact something much more.
My experience of autism. I am, by many accounts, a pretty clever person. Growing up with undiagnosed autism for me meant parsing out the ways in which my behavior was unacceptable and then developing strategies to avoid the negative consequences. However, since I didn't understand the why behind many of these social and societal expectations (especially at first), I wasn't in a position to differentiate between cis-normative expectation (i.e., expectations that I would behave like a boy) and other types of social expectations (e.g., that I would wait my turn patiently when playing games). I now believe that many of my early leanings towards traditionally feminine behavior were masked along with typical autistic traits.
Interestingly, my mom argued with me about my autism diagnosis more than she did about me coming out as trans. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The trans corollary of comphet. Comphet (compulsory heterosexuality) is the experience some gay people have (primarily used in reference to lesbians) where they think they are attracted to the opposite sex due to societal pressure. For my part, I was (am) strongly attracted to women. Since lesbians, much less trans lesbians, were never actually seen in my experience growing up, I assumed that my attraction toward women negated my feelings of longing to be a woman. In other words, how could I really want to be a girl (using the diminuitive here because, during the time in question, I was a kid. Ease off, TERFs)?
No point of reference. Here's where we circle back around to representation. If you've seen Disclosure, the documentary on Netflix about trans representation in film and television, you understand where this is going. There just weren't any positive role models to sustain the idea that I could be a woman. All of the examples I had for trans-anything were, frankly, negative (Tom Hanks, Peter Scalari, and Dustin Hoffman were just playing at being women to get by; not transgender). It was Buffalo Bill. It was Weird. Perverse. Gross.
However, all the while I was working so very hard to fit in to the cis-het, neurotypical, and patriarchal expectations of my world outwardly, I was still unable to get rid of these intense demands from my psyche that I desperately needed to be not-who-I-was. Instead of acting on those, I sublimated them, telling myself that I was in fact some kind of perverse sexual deviant for having these fantasies. You know, that at my core I was gross.
What counter examples did I have?
(this is another point that the gender critical crowd likes to crow about, rather hatefully: the idea that trans women transition either because they are attracted to men and want a larger pool of men to choose from, or because they are attracted to women and have a clinical sexual perversion where they get off by pretending to be a woman (known as autogynephilia). There is a great deal of evidence to debunk this claim, but I'm sure that many trans women before me have felt a lot like I did, and some researchers latched on to that idea to promulgate a very invalidating model of what motivates people to transition.)
It took a lot for me to finally admit to myself that I am transgender. Even when I gathered up the courage to tell my spouse of 23 years (at the time), I said, "I was supposed to have been born a girl." When they used the term transgender to describe me, I recoiled.
I mean, let's face it. If you were like me, your experience with an actual transgender person — knowing they were trans — were pretty fucking limited. And what is shown on TV is often very harmful. Even the trans women who aren't fetishized sex workers are treated as though they are deceptive and duplicitous, trying to lure unsuspecting men into romantic relationships. And how did most of the men in those shows react when they found out? Like the whole thing was... gross.
Please don't get me wrong, I support sex workers and their right to earn a living in safe and respectful conditions. I've worked in I.T. in the porn and BDSM retail industry. I am not saying sex workers are gross — they certainly are not — I am saying that the Hollywood portrayal of sex workers, especially trans women, is almost singularly demeaning.
And so it was that, even after I came out to myself, to my partner, to my friends and my family, and to the wide world as a trans woman — and was accepted, supported, and cherished in (nearly) all of them — I still had (have) internalized transphobia. I had this conception that I, as a transgender woman, could not be anything but woman-with-an-asterisk. Loveable as a person, maybe, but certainly not desirable. Certainly not the kind of person that someone else might find attractive. That me claiming my authentic self was still, at its most visceral level... gross.
Watching Disclosure certainly didn't do a lot to alleviate that, despite its kindness, and its beauty, and its very necessary message. But there was one part where a trans actress (Jamie Clayton) came on and talked briefly about a role she had where she felt comfortable as herself. I watched that segment a second time, but couldn't find where they named the show, but it was right around when Lily Wachowski was talking about a show she had been a part of, and — with a little bit of sleuthing — I found it.
There she is, one to right of center. Isn't she just gorgeous?
In the very first episode, when we first see her character (Nomi) as part of an opening montage, she's giving herself an injection. A hormone injection (most likely estradiol, though they don't say any of that, but I saw it).
Her first real scene though, she's having sex. With her partner, also a woman.
And it's hot.
It's like any other designed-to-tittilate sex scene.
This is when I turned off the episode and cried.
Here we have a trans actress.. playing a trans woman... who is not perfectly passing... in a loving, vibrantly sexual relationship with another woman... It was the exact opposite of gross. It was fucking validation of a kind I had not experienced before. I'm not Jamie Clayton by any stretch, but goddamnit I could see myself in her character. I doesn't hurt that the character's name — Nomi — is so very, very close to my chosen middle name...
And for the first time in my life, I could envision myself that way, that my body and my identity might be not only not gross... more than tolerable... but beautiful and cool and amazing in its own right. I spent the rest of the day and the next in a contented smile.
It took almost 48 years into this hard, disjointed, and splintered existence before I could imagine something good, much less beautiful, about an intrinsic part of my identity.
And that — that's why positive representation matters. Thank you, Jamie!
Improv nerd, geek girl. She/her.
Theater owner, actor & improviser, writer, filmmaker, minor league humorist, and generally-opinionated scuttlebug.
Lover of the em dash, proponent of the serial comma, and staunch defender of "literally" literally meaning "in the literal sense".
Regular insights on creativity and the creative process.